Prisoner for 33 years, hobbled man asks for new trial

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

October 31, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

Jerry Paul Cooper, a small, timid-looking man with thin, graying hair, took the witness stand yesterday for the first time since his conviction for attempted rape 33 years ago.

He wore a rust-colored leisure suit. His feet were chained.

When Cooper hobbled to the stand-- moving with a painfully slow shuffle with hunched shoulders and clasped hands-- everyone in the silent courtroom watched him with sympathy.

When the court clerk asked him to raise his right hand for the oath, he raised his left instead. When asked his date of birth, he gave the wrong one and had to be corrected by his attorney.

As he testified, he stared straight ahead, expressionless, rarely looking athis questioners. He kept his hands clasped in his lap. Occasionally, he licked his lips.

He answered questions with a mumbled "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." Once he shifted uncomfortably in the witness stand's wooden chair and explained to the judge, "This is making me nervous."

When Cooper's time on the witness stand was over, he rose slowly and shuffled back to his seat at the defendant's table.

And as he made his way back, everyone in the silent courtroom watched him with sympathy.

A lot has changed in 33 years.

In 1958, Cooper was a black teen-ager with a limited IQ and a third-grade education, accused of attempting to rape an elderly white woman.

The police officers who arrested Cooper in 1958 were white men.

The court-appointed psychologists who examined him, the witnesses who testified against him, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted him, and the judge who eventually tried, convicted and sentenced him -- all of these were white men.

n 1958, Cooper faced a decidedly hostile court virtually alone. His court-appointed lawyer, who is black, was young and inexperienced and now says he may have been trying his first rape case.

Cooper's family was embarrassed by the charge and wrote him off. Only Cooper's mother attended the trial, and she was not allowed to speak on his behalf.

Cooper was sentenced to life imprisonment for attempted rape -- and that was lucky. He could have gotten the death penalty.

He is 49 years old and has been in prison now for 33 years.

Last year, Cooper's niece, Dora Williams, began to wonder about the mysterious "Uncle Jerry" who went away when she was 2 years old; the Uncle Jerry about whom the family spoke in whispers.

She began to visit Cooper in prison -- the first visits he had received in years -- and she began to investigate his case. The deeper she delved, the more convinced she became that Cooper had not received a fair trial.

For instance, neither the alleged victim, a 72-year-old woman who died of causes unrelated to the incident before the case could come to trial, nor any of the witnesses accused Cooper of attempted rape.

At most, their testimony indicated that Cooper may have knocked the elderly woman down, possibly in an attempt to snatch her purse.

The rape charge came after police produced a signed confession in which Cooper allegedly boasted, "Every once in a while I feel like I want to get something from a white woman, you know what I mean? I want a little bit because I like it better when I get it from a white woman instead of a colored woman."

A Baltimore Criminal Court judge found Cooper guilty of attempted rape based on the confession, even though a court-appointed psychologist wrote that it was very unlikely that the confession was genuine.

Yesterday, in a post-conviction hearing in what is now the city Circuit Court, a public defender petitioned for a new trial, arguing that Cooper had not been effectively represented and that the judge's sentence was unnecessarily harsh.

But here is the catch: It is possible that Cooper's attorney did the best he could, given the racism of the time. And if the attorney did the best he could under the circumstances, and if the sentencing judge followed sentencing standards of the time, there might not be legal grounds to set aside Cooper's conviction.

Officials at the time may have been unfair but legal.

For instance, the consulting psychologist also recommended that Cooper be given a long prison term based on his past "anti-social behavior." But a review shows that Cooper's record consisted of an arrest for wandering the streets at night and a juvenile charge of attempted breaking and entering, hardly evidence of incorrigibility.

And the sentencing judge was aware of two outstanding criminal charges against Cooper, including the alleged rape of another white woman. But one might also wonder why the state pursued the one case in which the victim was dead and could not testify.

Ironically, a black female prosecutor argued against setting aside the conviction yesterday before a white female judge. The public defender representing Cooper was a white woman.

Female officials of any race were very rare in a Baltimore courtroom in 1958.

Cooper's attorney in 1958, Soloman Baylor, later became one of the city's first black Circuit Court judges.

There currently is a black police commissioner, a black state's attorney and a black mayor.

Thus, an awful lot of progress has been made in the city's justice system while Cooper sat in prison.

There are new and improved standards of fairness and, indeed,the women and blacks all looked upon Cooper yesterday with sympathy.

But they also insisted they were limited by the law in what they could do for him.

Judge Ellen M. Heller is expected to make a ruling on Cooper's petition for a new trial within 10 days.

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